Nantucket’s Wildflowers -Fall 2008

by: Hilary Newell

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

I look forward to my walks at all times of the year. In the winter, my walking companion and I bundle up and leash the dogs and head out into the moors and we are invigorated by the bracing winds off the ocean.

The bright orange flowers of Asclepias tuberosa, also known as milkweed, make this a standout in the sandplain grasslands environment. This plant is on the “watch list” of endangered species.

But in the spring, especially this past year, the winds calm, the sun comes out, and the sandplain wildflowers bravely poke their heads out of the ground. Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) can be found not only in the moors, but also in shrubby areas and lightly-shaded forest areas. Named Mayflower after the pilgrims’ ship, it is the Massachusetts state flower.

As a child, I was warned “Don’t pick the Mayflower” because in New York, it is endangered. Or rather “Exploitably Vulnerable,” a designation given to certain plants that may become endangered in the near future if commercial and personal use isn’t checked. It is, however, quite common in almost all the other states east of the Mississippi. Its sweet-scented flowers often hide under the leaf litter, and might only be seen if you are really looking.

The bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata) is only a few inches tall, but its eye-catching blue color stands out from the spring green around it. At the same time, the lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) is blooming profusely nearby. A native throughout the United States, blueberries are prolific here on Nantucket. Their bulbous waxy flowers are teeming with bees and we anticipate the harvest later on. Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) has an insignificant bloom, but its dark green leaves are fragrant when you brush by. It provides some height and cover over Arctostaphylos uva ursi or bearberry.

This wildflower is more of a shrub and occurs copiously nearly everywhere on the island. The flowers look somewhat like blueberry flowers, but the fruits, supposedly delicious to bears, are mealy and dry.

Another early bloomer is golden heather (Hudsonia ericoides). The bright golden yellow blooms lay low to the ground and are striking from a distance, splashes of color dotted along the edge of the path. This May, I was lucky enough to see a few pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule). Once common throughout the eastern woodlands and New England, the number of these orchids has declined due to deer browse and excessive mowing. If you’ve never seen one, you may be awed by the unique flower form. Quaker ladies, (Hedyotis caerulea) are at the opposite end of the scale with their diminutive quarter-inch white flowers and are abundant in spring.

June and July bring other wildflowers, and colors pop in the fading light. Open fields are now smothered in oxeye daisies. The pasture thistle comes into flower in June and is unmistakable with its spiny foliage and purple/magenta cap poking out from a sea of green. Its cousin, Cirsium horridulum is on the endangered species watch list. Its yellow thistle heads are surrounded by spiny foliage, and if you’re not careful, it will jab you. Both are attractive to butterflies. In other parts of the country, thistles are considered noxious weeds, especially in areas where grazing is important. Their spines and tenacity make them difficult to eradicate.

Other plants being monitored in the same area are the bushy rockrose (Helianthemum dumosum), eastern silvery aster (Aster concolor) and New England blazing star (Liatris scariosa). Also listed of special concern, the blazing star is one of the more noticeable of our local wildflowers with rose-purple flower heads on stalks that can reach two feet. It blooms in August and September often in the company of A. concolor. Slender, not bushy like its cultivated counterparts, this lilac-colored aster occurs nowhere else in New England except Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.This year I observed quite a large patch of blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium) marked with small colored flags. Instinct told me that this was some sort of tracking or management program so I called Ernie Steinauer, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s programs on Nantucket, to find out. He explained that the Land Bank is managing and monitoring rare plants and upland species such as sandplain blue-eyed grass. He went on to educate me further and told me there are four types of blue-eyed grass here on the island, and that S. fuscatum is the rarest of all the types, but it is the most common on Nantucket. It’s a bit of botanical irony that it is listed as “Of Special Concern” as it is only found on the Cape and Islands, but it is the most common one found here.

Further wandering during our walks affords us some really interesting plants. Baptisia or wild indigo resembles wild asparagus and starts to bloom around the end of June. It is poisonous, however, and should not be consumed. Another poisonous beauty is goat’s rue, a member of the pea family. The pink and yellow bi-colored flowers are distinctive and the plants reach about 18 inches. The flower ripens into a hairy pod and may even cause dermatitis when handled. The seeds are toxic.

The list of amazing wildflowers that we enjoy here goes on and on, and it is a natural extension of being a gardener to appreciate the wild. Many are likely to want to try to reproduce the look of the wild areas in our own environments. But beware! The Massachusetts Endangered Species Act dictates a minimum $500 fine for the “unauthorized taking, possession, and sale of species on the State or Federal Lists.” Simply put, take only pictures and leave only footprints. Even picking the flower off of some wildflowers can keep that plant from setting seed for the following year. Or you may see a whole field of flowers and think that species is not endangered. But if you are looking at an expanse of St. Andrew’s cross (Hypericum stragulum) and thinking there are lots here, be aware that Nantucket is the only place in New England where it grows and it is endangered.

Wildflowers are notoriously difficult to germinate and they do not transplant well. The seeds often need to pass through the digestive tract of a bird or be scarified or stratified in order to germinate. Scarification is simply to rough up the seed coat so it can absorb water better. Cold stratification is used to mimic winter conditions that a seed would have to go through in its natural state, lying on the ground. This includes keeping temperature and moisture at the same levels found in the wild, and is usually necessary on cold-hardy perennials and shrubs and trees. With lots of patience, this may be accomplished, but collecting seed from endangered species carries the same penalty as cutting or collecting the whole plant, so it’s best to try to get seed from a reputable retailer if you want to try to germinate these on your own.

Regarding transplanting, it’s just a bad idea to try to dig up a plant from the moors and transplant it into your garden. Sometimes, the environment needed for the plant to survive is very different from your garden setting. The difficulty in germinating or transplanting wildflowers is one of the fundamental reasons for their populations reaching endangered or special concern status.

So how can a gardener bring some of the beauty of the moors closer to home? There are species that are similar to our native wildflowers that we can grow without damaging the fragile populations. Local nurseries carry varieties that, while not native, are similar, such as ‘Liatris Floristan violet and many varieties of fall-blooming asters. There are online resources like that carry all native plants. Vermont Wildflower Farm grows the New England aster, and the Vermont Ladyslipper Company Ltd. sells mature laboratory propagated pink lady’s slipper.

But unless you stop cultivating the area around your home, it would be a huge challenge to make your surroundings look like the moors, and even then, your yard would probably end up looking like a big patch of weeds. So if you want to see that look, why not just get out of the house and go for a long walk? For nine or 10 months of the year, you can observe some of the most beautiful blooming wildflowers in the eastern United States. Some will jump right out of the landscape because of their colors, but keeping your eyes to the sides of your path will ensure that you will see the smaller ones, too. Careful observation each time will almost guarantee that you will see different wildflowers whenever you walk in the beauty of Nantucket’s unique sandplains.

Hilary Newell is the Greenhouse Production Manager at Bartlett’s Farm.

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